When you think back to your first pet, what was it? For a lot of us, it was probably a pocket pet. Our parents got us a hamster, rat, mouse, or if you were really lucky a chinchilla because these tiny critters used to be seen as beginner or introductory pets.
The truth is pocket pets need the same care and consideration as larger pets. Pocket pets can be great pets for a family but, like every pet, they have specific dietary needs, medical concerns you should be aware of, and a standard of care that needs to be met.
That doesn’t mean pocket pets are all work and no fun! Pocket pets are full of personality and many of them enjoy being carefully handled. If you’re new to pocket pets, this is your guide to helping them live their best life. We even have a list of veterinarians in the Oakland area who are well-versed in working with pocket pets.
These chubby-cheeked little furballs are one of the most popular pets in the U.S. There are several different species that you might come across as you search for your perfect hamster, the Syrian, or Teddy Bear, being the most common.
Hamsters have a reputation for being a little bit spicy. This is because as prey animals, they can be startled if not handled correctly. They’re also mostly nocturnal and don’t enjoy being woken up early.
Hamsters do best on their own. A multi-hamster situation is a recipe for stress and even fights. Dwarf hamsters are an exception, but even this takes some work and proper research.
When you picture a hamster cage, you’re probably picturing one of the popular plastic cages surrounded by tubes. You may be surprised to learn that this is not the ideal home for your hamster. These are too small and are poorly ventilated.
Proper, well-ventilated hamster cages actually look a little bit like a fish tank. They’re often made of wood and have mesh or wiring to help keep up air flow. It’s important that their enclosure have a nice, deep bottom. That way, you can put enough material for your hamster to burrow. Since hamsters are big chewers, it’s important to make sure they have tons of toys and enrichment activities within their enclosure.
A large glass tank with a wire top can make a great habitat. Again, you want to make sure the bedding is deep enough for your hamster to burrow. Paper bedding is the best for your hamster’s habitat.
Make sure your hamster has a solid, non-mesh wheel for exercise. This wheel should be the proper size for your species of hamster, so be sure to do your research to select the right size. You also want to make sure they have places to hide. Wooden ramps and platforms can keep your hamster from getting bored in the cage and keep things interesting.
Keep the habitat clean by scooping soiled bedding daily. Give the cage a thorough scrub once a week. This keeps things smelling clean, and more importantly, prevents bacterial infections like bumblefoot.
Hamsters are furry balls of energy, and they need an outlet. A wheel in their cage will help your hamster get their steps in. Hamsters in the wild can roam for miles at night and pet hamsters still have the drive to burrow and move.
A playpen is perfect for letting your hamster get their wiggles out. You can find pop-up playpens designed for rodents that are escape-proof online and in pet stores. Wheels, ramps, tunnels, a hiding place, and chew toys will keep your hamster happy. Just make sure you supervise since they can be escape artists.
If you're thinking a hamster ball sounds like a great idea, we recommend against it. Even though it seems like they're having a good time, a hamster in a ball can actually be highly stressed… instead of feeling free, they feel trapped. The balls are poorly ventilated and can be too heavy leading to muscle injuries. The slits that provide some small amount of ventilation can trap a hamster’s foot also leading to injury.
Hamster pellets supplemented with small amounts of fruits (no grapes), greens, and root veggies, will keep your hamster fit and feisty. Hamsters are omnivores and enjoy a tiny bit of
scrambled egg or an occasional mealworm. They also enjoy seed sprays like millet, flax and
There are a few health conditions that hamsters can develop. Wet tail (watery diarrhea), tumors, and respiratory infections are not uncommon in hamsters.
Rats are sweet and intelligent and can learn a trick or two. They’re fans of a cuddle, and these social critters don’t mind living with a companion or two. Rats can be litter trained fairly easily since they like to keep things tidy by using one area as the designated latrine.
Rats like having room to roam. Cages featuring multiple levels, like the Critter Nation cages, are great for housing rats. Your rat’s cage should have a solid bottom as wire bottoms can lead to foot injury.
Rats like to make a nest, so in addition to paper bedding, crumpled paper, or shredded paper towels should be included. Rodents are happiest with a place to hide, so include hidey holes for your rats to curl up in. Hammocks and ropes are also fun additions to your rat’s habitat.
Clean your rat’s litter area daily, and remove wet bedding and scattered food. A twice-weekly scrubbing will keep your rat's environment sanitary and prevent bacterial build-up.
Rats need exercise and enrichment activities to prevent boredom. You can buy rat enrichment toys or even make your own. Tubes, branches to climb, and swings make a great playground for rats. They can also be entertained by crumpled-up paper in a box they can dig in. A playpen filled with paper towels and a digging box is the perfect out-of-cage activity for your rats.
A diet of pelleted rat food combined with greens, broccoli, carrots, and other veggies will keep your rat well-nourished. Make sure water is always easily accessible.
Unfortunately, rats are susceptible to a few health conditions. Diet is incredibly important because rats are prone to obesity. Tumors are a common problem along with respiratory infections. Regular vet visits will help with the prevention and early detection of common problems.
They’re known for their soft, plush coats, but don’t get them wet! A dust bath offered twice a week is what your chinchilla needs to stay clean.
Chinchillas are chatty and do best in pairs since they love to be social with each other. With proper handling, they can become accustomed to people, but take it slowly because they are shy.
Like rabbits, chinchillas produce a special type of feces that they need to eat for their digestive health. They generally produce these at night. This is an extremely important part of their digestive process.
Like rats, Chinchillas do best in a multi-level cage with hiding spots. No wire bottoms… since they can injure your chinchilla's feet. Fleece covers and paper bedding are the best for lining your chinchilla’s cage. Unlike rats, chinchillas aren’t easily trained to use a litter box. You can provide one and hope for the best, but spot cleaning every day is still necessary. A full clean once a week will help keep the habitat fresh.
Don’t be fooled by their cuddly appearance. Chinchillas are active animals that love to run and jump. Exercise saucers can keep them moving during cage time. Time out of the cage is beneficial as well. A playpen in a chinchilla-proof area away from windows is ideal. PVC pipes to climb through, places to hide, and safe chews all help your chinchilla’s enrichment.
Chinchillas need a diet high in fiber. Timothy hay, oat hay, or other grass-based hay that is low in calcium should always be available. Chinchilla pellets round out their diet, and fresh water should always be available.
One major issue chinchilla owners should be on the lookout for is gastrointestinal stasis. This is a major concern and should be treated immediately. Other common problems are upper respiratory infections and impacted teeth. Regular vet appointments and familiarity with your chinchilla’s behavior will help you notice any worrying changes in behavior.
Mice are cute and can be endlessly entertaining to watch. They’re social critters and females do best in pairs or small groups. Males can be social, but this works best if they are introduced while very young. Mice can be friendly with you but aren’t generally fans of being held or handled. You should try to get them used to handling, however, to keep handling them while cleaning their cage from being too traumatic.
Like hamsters, an aquarium with a wire mesh cover makes a great home for mice. Paper bedding makes good cage lining and should be several inches deep. Like other rodents, mice need hiding places and enjoy tubes and exercise wheels. Spot clean daily with a once-a-week scrub.
Mice can benefit from time spent outside of their cage. A kiddie pool or other solid enclosure too tall for your mouse to climb makes an ideal playpen. Make it suitable for playtime with places to hide and a few toys. In their cage climbing ropes, chews, tunnels, and an exercise wheel will help keep them fit.
A commercial pellet diet supplemented with vegetables and fruits like peas, carrots, apples, and bananas is well-balanced for your mouse.
Like their larger cousins, rats, mice are prone to developing tumors later in life. Skin problems and parasites like fleas and ticks are other problems you should be on the lookout for.
oakland vets and resources for pocket pets
We’re fortunate here in Oakland to have several veterinarians who are experienced in working with pocket pets.
Hayward Vet Hospital- Perfect for pocket pets who need a veterinarian, this clinic provides specialized care for pocket pets and exotics.
Ohana Animal Hospital- This vet has a ward specifically for small mammals and exotics.
Veterinary Emergency Group- This is the place to go if your pet needs emergency care.
If you’re hoping to give a rat or other rodent a second chance at happiness, check out Ratical Rodent Rescue. If you love small mammals, you can also volunteer your time. Check out their page for more information.
Pocket Pet Care
Looking for someone to care for your pocket pet? Fur and Feather Pet Care specializes in caring for exotic pets in the Oakland area. Contact us now to get started!